There’s so much talk about going to Mars that we tend to overlook a more reasonable mission that is staring us in the face, says former NASA astronaut Jeffrey A. Hoffman.
Business Insider spoke with Hoffman at BBC FUTURE’s World-Changing Ideas Summit about the future of space exploration.
A mission to the moon would be infinitely cheaper, shorter, and safer than a trip to Mars, which is partly why Hoffman says it makes more sense to revisit our lunar neighbour before we attempt to conquer the Red planet.
The moon is nearly 600 times closer than Mars, and we already have a history of success with landing on it. During the Apollo missions, NASA sent 24 astronauts to the moon, 12 of which walked on the surface.
Does this success make the moon any less interesting to explore? Of course not!
“We basically just scratched the surface during Apollo, you know,” Hoffman told Business Insider. “Some people say, Oh, been there. Done that.’ They just don’t understand.”
And he’s not the only one who thinks this.
Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield agrees that the moon is a more sensible goal. NASA’s spacecraft Orion was built to shepherd astronauts to Mars by the 2030s, and “that is a great vehicle.” Hadfield told The Guardian. “But where we are going to go next is the moon.”
He continued: “That’s where we are going to go because it just makes sense. It is only three days away and we can invent so many things.”
Hoffman and Hadfield have a point — and it’s one quickly lost in the minds of Mars-dreamers like Mars One and SpaceX’s Elon Musk.
“The moon is a rich place. It’s a museum of the early solar system and it should be thoroughly explored,” Hoffman told us in October.
From a space exploration point of view, one of the most important areas to explore on the moon is the vast number of craters.
“If it turns out there are large water deposits in some of these craters in the moon, we could turn that into rocket fuel and transform the economics of space travel,” Hoffman said.
A study in 2012 suggested possible evidence for the existence of ice in the lunar crater Shackleton Crater, but more investigations are necessary to ultimately determine if this crater, as well as others on the moon, hold enough ice to fuel future rockets. A manned mission could readily collect samples to determine this.
If that isn’t incentive enough, then Hoffman advises to consider just how long it has been since humankind has set foot on any natural body besides Earth. In fact, it has been more than 54 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon.
That’s more than enough time to forget what it’s like to explore, first-hand, an alien surface.
“If we’re going to go to Mars, I think getting a little practice under our belts would be a good idea,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman concluded, “Whether it’s absolutely necessary [to revisit the moon], I don’t know… but I think it makes sense to go to the moon and test out our systems and get people used to the idea of planetary exploration again.”
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